ALAMEDA -- The Raiders lost a Hall of Fame talent just days before the regular season started.
Knock on wood if you’ve heard that before.
It has happened twice in as many seasons now, starting with edge rusher Khalil Mack's just before the start of the 2018 regular season's first practice week. The Raiders got nothing in return to help that already talent-deprived squad, and it was a Mike Tyson gut punch that left those Raiders wobbling all season long.
On Saturday, they experienced déjà vu all over again but handled it far better.
The Raiders cut superstar receiver Antonio Brown two days before kicking 2019 off Monday night at Oakland Coliseum against the Denver Broncos.
Raiders coach Jon Gruden laughed off a question asking him to compare the situations.
“Well, I got to meet Antonio,” Gruden said. “I never got to meet Khalil, so at least I got to meet a great player.”
Brown’s departure seemingly was a shock to the Raiders' system, considering how many players believed his drama-filled week was over following a heartfelt apology in a team meeting Friday morning.
“You’ll have to go ask in the locker room,” Gruden said. “It might be shocking to some, but I don’t know that our players are truly shocked by what has happened.”
Gruden was right. Saturday’s locker room session open to the media was different than the post-Mack trade scene.
That locker room was surprised by the decision to trade Mack to the Chicago Bears for a compensation package that included two first-round NFL draft picks after it became clear the Raiders weren’t going to pay Mack like one of the best at his position. The trade happened on a day without media access, so players had time to absorb the impact. Mack hadn’t been around during a holdout, but losing him for good was still hard to handle.
“It was very shocking,” defensive end Arden Key said last year. “I thought the deal was going to get done, but it didn’t work out.”
Some players talked after that trade, but it wasn’t comparable to this year’s scene despite the Brown cut coming just hours before players met with the media.
Running back Jalen Richard was around for both losses, and described their differences well.
“That was a gut punch with Khalil last year, being the player, the professional and leader that he was,” Richard told The Athletic. “But that was a business decision. This was…I don't even know the words to describe it. The team did everything they could … It just became too much for the staff and the people upstairs to make it work. We were all excited yesterday that he was back, but I kind of knew yesterday that if he did something else wrong, cutting him was a possibility. They had exhausted all the ways to keep him here and keep him in tune.”
There was obvious disappointment in the way Brown exited the Raiders, but Saturday’s vibe was positive and forward-looking, seemingly happy to be done with the AB drama that hijacked the entire Raiders preseason.
The Mack trade and Brown cut did not occur under identical circumstances, either.
Mack was a homegrown talent and a model citizen looking to get paid market rate for his elite talent playing a premium position. Players root for others to get paid, and Mack leaving was a blow that left players raising an eyebrow at the front office’s unwillingness to bring him back.
Brown was well-liked in the locker room, but rarely practiced as a Raider, caused some trouble and eventually forced his way out of Oakland. Brown gave the Silver and Black a better chance to win, but the Raiders remain confident they can stack victories without him.
Three team captains talked to the media Saturday -- Derek Carr was not made available and Lamarcus Joyner was not seen in the locker room – and several key players addressed the Antonio Brown situation. That included top receiving options Tyrell Williams, Darren Waller and Hunter Renfrow.
This group is undoubtedly more talented than last year, with a strong leadership core to help carry the Raiders through a tough stretch. That should help as the Raiders embark on the 2019 season with a difficult start to the schedule.
“I thought the guys, from the leadership on down, have been locked in,” Waller said. “We have tuned out the noise and the distractions. That fits our personality as a team. I feel like everybody has really bought in to what we’re doing here. Nobody’s in a sad state today. We’re ready to play.”